Growing up on the revivalist sawdust trail in the 1960s.
Johnson was three when her mother, after a lapse in faith that left her divorced and pregnant, joined tent preacher Brother David Terrell’s evangelical team as the organist. Much of this debut memoir is about the author’s discovering and dealing with her mother’s status—and shame—as Terrell’s mistress. This chronicle of a world filled with love and sin, boredom and adventure and faith and questioning also serves as a portrait of a complex and charismatic man. Terrell was the last of the great Holy Roller preacher-healers, and his eventual fall from grace coincided with Johnson’s own emancipation from the only reality she knew. Throughout her childhood, the author observed healings, exorcisms, people babbling in tongues and threats from the KKK. “The events I witnessed and the stories about these events have intertwined to form a single thread of memory,” writes the author. “Sifted and shaped over time by the adults around me, my recollections have distilled into a mythology of faith, hard to believe, harder still to deny.” By telling her story from a child’s perspective, Johnson captures both the confusion and clarity that come with preadolescent recollection. She avoids intellectualizing and judgment through a disciplined honesty about her own struggle with faith. After living with a series of sometimes-affectionate, sometimes-abusive caretakers while her mother traveled with Terrell, Johnson saw the once-poor ministry grow into a lucrative operation. Terrell fathered three daughters with the author’s mother, adding to his network of illegitimate children who traveled blindfolded to visit him on his secret properties before he was taken to prison for tax evasion.
A trustworthy narrator, Johnson is consistently funny, poetic and remarkably devoid of bitterness.